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T H O M A S J. L Y O N Utah State University An Ignored Meaning of the West* It has become a critical commonplace, and a valid one, that much of American literature draws meaning from the contrast between culture and wildness. This juxtaposition of the great wild land and its original inhabitants with the recently implanted Anglo-Saxon civilization (which may be used for purposes ranging from humorous to satiric to deeply philosophical) is perhaps no­ where more fruitful than in the literature of the American West. For sensitive writers who want to say something important about the quality of life in their culture, and for writers who have fitted themselves into the patterns of western nature (instead of observing from outside), the primitive operates somewhat like the sea of Melville—a constant of absolute truth, standing behind the surfaces of new societies and available as a Thoreauvian “realometer.” This contrast is often worked in the terms of primitivism; and the Indian, the real westerner, naturally figures as a prominent reference point. This is the way John Mathews puts it in Wah’ Kon-Tah: . . . the ubiquitous white man, in his inscrutable desire to proclaim his presence, slaughtered wild life. The great stretches of prairie and the wild blackjack hills seemed to inspire in him consciousness of his inferiority, and he shouted his presence and his worth to the silent world that seemed to ignore him. *This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 1967. 52 Western American Literature Where the Indian passed in dignity, disturbing nothing and leaving Nature as he had found her; with nothing to record his passage, except a footprint or a broken twig, the white man plun­ dered and wasted and shouted; frightening the silences with his great, braying laughter and his cursing. He was the atom of steam that had escaped from the pressure of the European social system, and he expanded in this manner under the torch of Liberty.1 We tend, I think, to discount this sort of writing in favor of less fervent comparisons, perhaps out of a guilty but submerged realization that the ecological sins Mathews summarizes are real and abundantly visible. More significantly, we simply have not conceived that we could learn anything important in a positive way from the Indian. I am speaking here of a general cultural bias and purposeful ignorance as well as a critical preference for sophistication. In opposition to this unquestionably dominant view I would like to offer a brief, didactic gloss; and I shall take as the basis for my discussion a theme that pervades the work of Frank Waters, who more than any other Western writer has seen through to the central philosophical contrast between Indian and White. I say “didactic” because I think Waters means this theme to speak directly and helpfully to our ascendant white civilization and be­ cause I think it does. John Joseph Mathews’ white man or somewhat milder variants of him are found in the strangest places. Even a poetic spirit like Thomas Wolfe, fresh from the friendly trees of the rolling hills of the East, reacted to the West like this: What I saw . . . is the abomination of desolation: an enormous desert bounded by infinitely far-away mountains that you never get to, and little pitiful blistered towns huddled down in the most abject loneliness underneath the huge light and scale and weather and the astounding brightness and dimensions of everything—all given a kind of tremendousness and terror and majesty. . . .2 This selection can serve well enough as a type specimen of the discomfort most of us newcomer white easterners have felt in the immensities of the arid West—with such notable exceptions of course, as Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey. This is the tension that worked and works on us. Frank Waters describes it this way in The Colorado: ijohn Joseph Mathews, Wah’ Kon-Tah (Norman, 1932), p. 57. ^Thomas Wolfe, letter to Elizabeth Nowell (June 7, 1938), quoted in Joseph M. Flora, Vardis Fisher (New York, 1965), p. 21. Meaning of the West 53 For to us . . . the haunting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 51-59
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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